How Do People With Low Vision…Participate in Marching Band?

My band director at my second high school was one of the most optimistic people I have ever met. They loved being presented with a challenge and strived to create an inclusive environment in their band program, for both the marching and symphonic bands. Even though I was transferring from a new school, they instantly made me feel included and like I could do almost anything (read about when I first met them here).  As a result, I was able to participate in marching band my junior and senior year. Here are some of my tips and tricks from the experience. Note that I did not use a blindness cane or other mobility aids at the time, and I played the Bb soprano clarinet (the “normal looking” clarinet).

No competitions

At my first high school, the marching band that played at halftime was the same one that competed at competitions throughout the state. Because of my poor coordination, my family and band director requested that I be exempt from a district wide policy, which mandated that students enrolled in band class participate in the marching band program. At my second high school, there were two marching bands- a competition band, and a halftime/fun band, which is what I participated in. My band director asked me frequently to join the competition band, though I never joined- but I cheered them on at competitions!

Learning to march

At band camp, it took me twice as long to learn to march as it did for any of the other freshman, due to my lack of depth perception. I had trouble taking the required amount of steps and judging the distance I had to march. I also couldn’t read the dot sheet like the other students. To accommodate this, a staff member would tell me exactly where to go while the other students read dot sheets.

Enlarge music to a larger print size

Marching band music is in even smaller print than normal music. Mine often had to be enlarged to 400% (normal materials were enlarged to 250%), but I especially appreciated when the music was made available digitally. Also make sure that everyone gets their music at the same time, so no one is standing around waiting for the enlarged copy of music.

Alert staff that there is a low vision student

My senior year, there was a staff member, paid by the school, who was highly critical of how poorly I marched, how I “acted” like I can’t see a thing, and even temporarily kicked me out of the band, all while the band director was in a meeting inside the building, oblivious to what was going on. After the director explained that I genuinely do have low vision and that it is very illegal to discriminate against a student like that, I was reinstated in the band.

Understand student limits

I can’t march a backwards diagonal while leading a line of freshmen, but I appreciate that my band director believed in me that I could do it, as they had originally written that in the drill set/choreography. I was much happier once I was reassigned to an area where I never had to diagonal march, or even backwards march.

Have a buddy

I made friends with the people directly next to me and in surrounding areas, and more or less trained them to be my human guides. Also having friends in the same section to help with reading music is invaluable. When we marched in a parade, I was surrounded by people who knew about my low vision and helped me to figure out where I should be going, and guided me while I played.

Standing off to the side

My senior year of high school, right before the senior football game, I fell off the school bus and into a pothole (more on that here), breaking my ankle in the process. For the rest of the season, my director had me standing towards the front of the band, playing without moving. One downside was that I was completely alone and often couldn’t follow the drum major very well, but I was much more comfortable with this than I ever was with marching.

Talk to section leaders and drum major

Let the section leaders and drum major(s) know about low vision, and ask them for help when needed. They also may be asked this by the band director. Often times, they are very experienced with marching and are happy to help.  I was “adopted” by the saxophone section my senior year, and the section leader helped me frequently (hi S!).

Marching in an opposite direction

Believe it or not, this never happened to me. I never had to worry about taking a left while the rest of the band took a right, or standing all by myself in the middle of the field. If that does happen, try to get back into the marching formation as quickly as possible. Don’t put the instrument down, but stop playing if possible until things are back in place. Each band program has a different way of handling these incidents.

Have fun!

Every single one of my friends can be traced back to my participation in band, even in college. I even met my two best friends from my second high school at band camp! I still keep in touch with a lot of my band friends and am forever grateful for the impact music has made on my life. Don’t take everything too seriously, and enjoy the experience of being in marching band as much as possible.

Not Graduating Early

My sophomore year of high school, especially the second semester, was awful. Over half of my teachers did not provide me with the accommodations in my IEP, due to a lack of resources and the difficulties that came with integrating assistive technology into the classroom. One of my teachers frequently reminded me how they wish I wasn’t in their class, another teacher would say isn’t their problem I don’t receive accessible materials, and the support staff would tell me to go away, or tell me I just need to continue to self-advocate, and everything will be better. The only class I felt included in was band, which had always been a safe space for me. I only felt included in one out of my five classes.

I was told one day that there was something I could do, something all of the staff members agreed would be a wonderful thing. I could take five more classes, and then graduate the next year, one year early, receiving a general/standard diploma instead of the advanced diploma I had been working towards. Or, I could take two more classes and graduate with a modified IEP diploma the next semester. Alternatively, I could get a GED now and graduate at the end of the semester. Basically, they decided they wanted to get rid of me.

Because I had been in an educational environment where my disability was considered an inconvenience to everyone around me, I started seriously thinking about this. I’d been given pamphlets about these options, but I couldn’t see them, so I put them in my backpack. I researched the GED, put together a mock class schedule for the next year, and told my parents all about the ideas I had been presented. They were horrified that this had even been presented to me as an option.

My family started to consider moving to a neighboring school district, which had a full virtual high school program and would provide better opportunities for me and my brother. It would involve selling our house and leaving the community we had lived in for twelve years, but it was the only way I was going to graduate. My parents started doing research, and made an appointment with a guidance counselor at what would eventually be my new high school.

My mom and I went to meet with this guidance counselor, and my head was full of the information I had been given. When the guidance counselor went to ask me about scheduling, I repeated what all of the other staff at my old school had said:

“I’m five credits from graduating, I could graduate a year early if I don’t take band and choose a standard diploma!”

“No, you’re not doing that.” The guidance counselor immediately said, very matter-of-factly. 

“You’re nothing special, it’s not like you’re a genius.  No college would take you.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  You are a very smart girl, I know you will be successful here, and you will get an advanced diploma.  Now tell me, are you interested in AP Language and Composition? How about statistics?  I remember you said you are a band kid, the director here is adorable and everyone just loves him.”

By the end of the meeting, the guidance counselor had created a mock schedule for me, with two AP classes, math, science, video production, and a Microsoft certification class. I even had band in there, the advanced band class. My guidance counselor told me I was going to have a better experience than I had in my old school district, and if things didn’t work out, I could always be switched into virtual classes.

The thoughts about graduating early completely left my head after I met my new band director, and they told me how excited they were that I was going to be joining them. The cool thing was, they were a former student of my old band director, and I was told they are “a way cooler version of them.” They said they would be happy to help me whenever needed, and I left the school that day feeling much more positive.

I don’t want to think about what would have happened if I gave up, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t. My new high school was far from perfect, but I was able to graduate in 2015 with a 3.8 GPA and advanced diploma, something I never would have been able to do in my old school district. My guidance counselor, case manager, band director, and technology teacher all helped support me and continue to encourage me, even to this day, to continue advocating for myself. I’m now entering my third year of college in a highly competitive program, and thriving. I could have very easily been one of the many students who fall through the cracks and believe they are not worthy of receiving education, but luckily that wasn’t me.

If you relate to any of my experiences right now, dear reader, let me just tell you that you belong, and you are worthy of receiving a free, appropriate public education. I know it may seem like there are staff members who hate you, but please continue to stay in school and do your best with the circumstances given. College is a completely different experience than high school, I promise.